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'Us Colored Women Had To Go Though a Plenty": Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women Thelma Jennings Southern slaves were "the happiest, and, in some sense the freest people in the world," wrote George Fitzhugh, Virginia proslavery defender. He claimed bondwomen did "little hard work" and were "protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters." In her famous diary, Mary Chesnut noted that the female slaves "take life easily. Marrying is the amusement of their life." Many antebellum southerners thought the female slaves were sensuous and promiscuous and cited the "easy chastity" of the bondwomen. Since associations were made between promiscuity and reproduction, the desired increase of the slave population seemed to be evidence of the bondwoman's passion. A slaveowner in northern Mississippi told Fredrick Law Olmsted that slaves "breed faster than white folks, a 'mazin' sight, you know; they begin younger," and, he added, "they don't very often wait to be married."1 Bondwomen's perception of the slave experience is in marked contrast to the slaveowners'. In her remarkable autobiography, Linda Brent, a mulatto female slave, noted, "Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own."2 Female bondage was worse than male bondage because the female slave was both a woman and a slave in a patriarchial regime where males and females were unequal, whether white or black. Because they were slaves, African-American women were affected by the rule of the patriarch in more ways and to a greater degree than the white women in the Big House. The size of the food allotment, brutal whippings, slave sales, and numerous other variables influenced the bondwoman's view of the patriarchy. Yet because she was a woman, her view, like that of the white woman, was also gender related. According to Anne Firor Scott, the most widespread source of discontent among white women centered around their inability "to control their own fertility."3 On the other hand, the bondwoman's entire sex life was subject to the desires of her owner. This essay will, therefore, deal only with the bondwomen's perspective from the viewpoint of gender, using twentieth-century interviews with female ex-slaves who were at least twelve or thirteen years of age at the time of emancipation. Of the 514 women in this category, 205, or almost forty percent, made comments of this nature. Undoubtedly, the reluctance of ex-bondwomen to discuss such private matters, especially with white ©1990 Journal of Women-s History, Vol. ι No. 3 (Winter)______________________ 46 Journal of Women's History Winter men and women, accounts for the fact that the number was not larger.4 A sample of fifty-eight male slave interviews in the same category was made for comparison; twenty-seven, or 46.55 percent, made gender-related comments. Likewise, a sample of contemporary testimony for both women and men was used. Compared to the Works Progress Administration narratives , contemporary testimony offers a great deal less evidence of sexual exploitation. The men outnumber the women even more than in the WPA narratives.s Female bondage was more severe than male bondage because these women had to bear children and cope with sexual abuse in addition to doing the work assigned to them, work that was often similar in type and quantity to that of male slaves. When it was profitable to exploit women as if they were men in the work force, slaveholders regarded female slaves, in effect, as genderless. But when they could be exploited in ways designed only for women, they were exclusively female—subordinate and unequal to all men. Bondwomen realized the white patriarch had the power to force them to mate with whomever he chose, to reproduce or suffer the consequences, to limit the time spent with their children, and even to sell them and their children. From the beginning of adolescence, females were subject to their master's desire for them to reproduce because increasing the number of slaves meant profits to him. Intervention in the process of procreation, either through subtle or forceful means, became...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 45-74
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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